Boston Red Sox need to have a better spring training in 2020

FORT MYERS, FLORIDA - FEBRUARY 27: Alex Cora #20 of the Boston Red Sox looks on against the Baltimore Orioles during the Grapefruit League spring training game at JetBlue Park at Fenway South on February 27, 2019 in Fort Myers, Florida. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
FORT MYERS, FLORIDA - FEBRUARY 27: Alex Cora #20 of the Boston Red Sox looks on against the Baltimore Orioles during the Grapefruit League spring training game at JetBlue Park at Fenway South on February 27, 2019 in Fort Myers, Florida. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images) /

The Red Sox starting pitchers were unprepared in 2019 which led to a poor season. Heading into 2020, they need to do a better job getting them ready.

The 2019 Red Sox had many problems and most of them could be traced back to their pitching. From a bullpen mostly bereft of quality major league talent to a starting rotation decimated by injuries (Chris Sale, David Price, Nathan Eovaldi) and ineffectiveness (Rick Porcello, Andrew Cashner), the biggest reasons the Red Sox didn’t have a chance to defend their World Series title from the year before was their poor pitching. However, while it’s easy to say that the main problem the team had was pitching and leave it at that, it can be further traced to where those issues all began: 2019 spring training.

Coming off of the World Series win in October 2018, the Red Sox celebrated long into the winter and beyond. For a city that is used to the New England Patriots savoring a title for a couple of weeks before turning the page and preparing for the upcoming season, it was a bit jarring to see the team’s continual celebration into the new year.

Manager Alex Cora stated that the team “wasn’t turning the page” from winning the World Series during spring training In February 2019 and the team’s Twitter and Facebook accounts even posted a photo with that graphic over it ahead of Opening Day. It made for a very tone-deaf message heading into the season which, as we know, went off the rails as soon as it started. The team seemed lethargic, unprepared, and overwhelmed once the games counted and the genesis of these issues can be traced back to how they got ready for 2019 versus in 2018.

Spring training in 2018 was Cora’s first with the team and the new skipper got everybody on board and into shape to hit the ground running once the season started. The Red Sox got off to a 17-2 start in April and never looked back and a big reason for that was how locked in and ready to go they were coming out of spring training. They went 22-9 and won the Grapefruit League which carried over into the regular season.

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Contrast that with 2019 when the Sox went 12-17 and finished dead last. For someone who boasted in 2018 about the team winning the Grapefruit League, Cora changed his tune as the team’s dismal 2019 preseason ended by saying that the results didn’t matter. However, it seems he was mistaken because the pitchers were completely unprepared when the season started and it showed.

Using the excuse that their pitchers pitched deep into October and that many of them pitched out of the pen in addition to starting games, Cora babied the starters all spring and indeed Red Sox starting pitchers threw the fewest spring training innings of any team with just 73.2 innings total between the seven of them (Chris Sale, Eduardo Rodriguez, Brian Johnson, David Price, Nathan Eovaldi, Rick Porcello, and Hector Velazquez).

Broken down even further, Rodriguez led the way with 15.0 innings pitched, followed by Porcello (12.0), Velazquez (11.1), Johnson (10.2), Sale (9.0), Eovaldi (7.0), and Price (6.2). Contrast this with the other top teams in the American League, the Houston Astros and New York Yankees had starters who threw 11-20 innings in spring training per pitcher.

Even going back a season, in 2018, those same starters (minus Eovaldi, who wasn’t on the team at the time) threw 75 innings (Rodriguez 8.0, Porcello 16.0, Velazquez 18.2, Johnson 15.2, Sale 14.2, Price 12.0). That’s more innings than the six of them plus Eovaldi threw in 2019.

The result was that the starting pitchers needed April and most of May to pitch their way into shape, a large contributor to the season’s poor start. A big ripple effect of this was on the bullpen, which actually pitched very well to start the season but quickly became taxed. Because the starters were routinely unable to go more than four or five innings per start (due either to fatigue, elevated pitch count, or ineffectiveness), the bullpen ended up throwing more innings than just about any other relief corps in the American League. Eventually this led to their lack of talent being exposed and the negative feedback loop of pitching which plagued the Red Sox for the duration of the season.

What this all means for 2020 is that the team absolutely cannot have a repeat of this. Cora spent all of 2019 defending how he ran spring training and said there was nothing wrong with his approach to babying the pitchers, but clearly that wasn’t borne out in the results.

Yes, there were injuries to Sale, Price, and Eovaldi which couldn’t be predicted, but it’s also impossible to determine whether those injuries were due to not being ready for the season to start or if they would’ve happened anyway.

As to his assertion that he had to handle them that way because the Red Sox pitched so late into October, I counter with this: why weren’t the Dodgers, Yankees, or Astros affected in the same way?  The Dodgers’ 2018 season ended on the same day as Boston’s and they played more postseason games, going to a full seven games in the NLCS as opposed to the Red Sox dispatching Houston in the ALCS in five games. The Yankees and Astros also pitched well into October, yet those three teams all made sure their starters got enough work in during spring training and all three won 100+ games and made it to October in 2019.

It’s already looking like Boston is going to take a step backward in 2020 with the cost-cutting they’re attempting, the low risk/low reward players they’ve acquired so far this offseason, and the loss of innnings-eater Rick Porcello in free agency, so remaining competitive in a top-heavy American League is going to be difficult enough without a repeat of the dismal pitching we saw in 2019.

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Without the excuse of a deep postseason run, there is no reason why Cora and the Red Sox coaching staff shouldn’t make sure the starting pitchers get enough work in so that they can hit the ground running and be game-ready come Opening Day.